If the Hawks-Celtics' saga wasn't a rivalry before Wednesday, Hawks captain Joe Johnson is convinced now that it can't be categorized any other way. And he came to that conclusion sometime early Wednesday morning, long before the two teams met in a nationally-televised thriller at Philips Arena (the Celtics won 88-85), when he realized that it's been eight months since the Hawks and Celtics went after each other in the playoffs and people refuse to stop talking about the seven drama-filled games from last April and early May."It's crazy," said Johnson, whose Hawks host Golden State next Friday night. "Honestly, I didn't think it would get to this point; where people would be talking about it as a rivalry. But I think it has become just that. I mean look at the game up there we lost earlier this season, a game we should have won.
"It's so much trash talking, and I think that's what makes it such a big rivalry. You look at all the altercations that came throughout that series. It's a rivalry when you know that there's going to be a fight for your life every time you face a team. And it's going to be like that every time we see them. But it's a respectful rivalry, too. When it's all said and done, both teams respect what the other has done."
Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett confirmed the respect portion of Johnson's comments but disputed the rest.
"For the record, this is not a rivalry," Garnett said after the game. "You have to win some games for it to be a rivalry. But they are a very good team."
CELTICS 88, HAWKS 85: Whatever hold the Hawks had on the Boston Celtics at Philips Arena during the playoffs last season lived on for three quarters and 11 minutes Wednesday night.
But with multiple chances to put the world champs away on their home floor for the fourth straight time, the Hawks came up empty, losing 88-85 in the final seconds before a sellout crowd of 18,729.
Mike Bibby's three-point heave at the buzzer bounced off the front of the rim, a somber ending to a wild day and night of buildup and action in one of the most anticipated games in recent Hawks' history.
"We were right there and we just couldn't get over the hump," said Hawks captain and All-Star Joe Johnson, who missed the second of two free throws with 2.7 seconds to play, a miss that cost the Hawks (15-10) a chance to send the game to overtime.
"This is tough, tough, man. This isn't the way we planned it."
The two teams played three instant classics in Atlanta, all three won by the Hawks, during last season's playoff series that stretched to seven games on the strength of the Hawks' prowess before the home crowd.
But Wednesday night the Celtics (24-2) found the late-game mettle that was missing last spring, with All-Star and NBA Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett making five straight baskets down the stretch to pull the Celtics over the hump in a game the Hawks controlled for much of the night.